Mickles: Saints' Hilton no longer project
By SHELDON MICKLES
Advocate sports writer
Published: Apr 19, 2006
METAIRIE ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â From the day he arrived for his first NFL minicamp, New Orleans Saints tight end Zach Hilton was considered a project.
It was pretty easy to see why.
At 6 feet, 8 inches and 268 pounds, the unheralded and undrafted Hilton looked more like a basketball player than a football player ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â which seemed more than a coincidence considering he came from the University of North Carolina ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â when he walked into the Saints locker room for the first time.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“You hear the basketball jokes, like ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‹ÂœYouÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢re in the wrong locker room,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬? Hilton recalled Tuesday. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“A lot of people wondered why I didnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t play basketball because itÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s easier on the body.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬?
Three years later, Hilton is no longer a project. Thanks to a strong second half of 2005, when he was one of the bright spots in a 3-13 season, Hilton isnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t a novelty around the locker room.
After not catching a pass in three games in his first two seasons with the Saints, Hilton caught 35 passes for 396 yards and one score. He came on in the final eight games with 32 receptions for 373 yards after starter Ernie Conwell was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Yet, Hilton knows there is no time to rest on his laurels. One month into the teamÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s offseason program, the fourth-year veteran is trying to prove himself all over to first-year coach Sean Payton and his all-new staff.
While he doesnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t know yet how he will fit into PaytonÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s version of the West Coast offense, Hilton hopes that heÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s finally shed the label of project.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ve still got a lot of work to do. ThereÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s always stuff to improve on,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬? Hilton said. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“But hopefully, IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢m not still considered a project. Now, I hope I can be utilized and contribute to the offense and be looked at as someone who has been out there a little bit at least.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“I still havenÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t played a ton of games, but I feel like IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ve been in there enough to know whatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s going on and what to expect. IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ve played against some good defenses and good individual players, so hopefully IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢m a little bit past the project stage. At the same time, IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢m not forgetting that IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ve got a lot of work to do still.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬?
ThatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s especially important in trying to prove himself to coaches heÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s never been around while trying to earn a spot at a crowded position. Besides Conwell, Hilton is competing with veteran Mark Campbell, who was signed from the Buffalo Bills, Shad Meier and Nate Lawrie.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“ItÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s definitely a challenge to work with a new staff, but at the same time I think itÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s kind of good for me,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬? Hilton said. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“It looks like theyÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢re looking at everybody with a clean slate. IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ve kind of had to prove myself over and over again ever since IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ve been in the league.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“Every year, I have to prove that I can make it and prove that I can play. So I feel like thatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s something IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢m used to and thatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s how I approach every practice. Every time I get a chance to be in front of the coaches, I have to show them that I can actually play in this league.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬?
While he admits he still has to work on his route-running and receiving, the focus is on becoming a more efficient blocker. ItÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s a facet of his game that former Saints coach Jim Haslett said was difficult to master because of HiltonÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s length. But he hasnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t stopped trying to make it a strength rather than a liability.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢m not your average football player. IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢m tall and kind of skinny and people assume things just from how you look,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬? Hilton said. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“Some people have sold me short a lot and still are. I just want to be able to go out and play and get an opportunity to show I can be a really successful player in this league.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬?
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